Bringing it all back home

The first stage of the reinstallation of the Detroit Institute of Arts' modern art collection reopens July 15, and there are lot of anxious people at the museum. One of them, the new boss of 20th century art, is Marianne Wilkinson. As she recently said, partly in jest, "Art makes people a lot madder than TV does," and that's cause for her to worry. To a large extent, she's responsible for how the new presentation is going to look -- and lots of people are watching.

The need for reinstallation all started when former DIA director Sam Sachs brought in the "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" show and dumped it into the modern galleries last summer. The large collection of modern art went into storage, and Wilkinson's first major public job is to put it back on view. For years, local critics of the modern wing's organization have abounded, so this seemed a good time to rethink the galleries' layout and structure.

Critical changes

The usual, safe practice -- of focus groups and advisory committees and "visitor studies" specialists -- was employed to evaluate the museum's condition and needs, and predictably the message delivered was that the modern galleries needed rethinking.

In an effort to make the gallery spaces more hospitable to contemporary aesthetics, walls and windows have been moved and floors have been altered. So while a true assessment of the reinstallation won't be possible until fall, certain things are evident. Foremost is that the alteration of fundamental aspects of the museum's design and construction have compromised the overall unity of the building. Thousands of square feet of oak parquet flooring and natural-stone room perimeter have been painted with an opaque stain to achieve the modernist look desired. While a cleaner line and space showcase the art with greater clarity, the loss of the long-lasting, high-quality stone and wood has been disastrous. The floor paint brings out the roughness of the oak and already shows scuffs, creating a shoddy and less than modernist appearance. While budget constraints preclude high-priced renovation, the cost of returning the floors to their former integrity, if not aesthetic fit, will be painfully enormous.

The trouble with "Tom"

Sitting in the middle of the room designated "Abstract Expressionism" on the new floor plan is Mark di Suvero's sculpture entitled "Tom," an imposing construction of timbers, cables and bolts looking like a three-dimensional, abstract expressionist painting. In its former space, it had more room around it and so could be engaged from a greater distance; this new space makes it more dramatic than ever.

But here is what some of the anxiety-causing to-do is about: This di Suvero has been, since its acquisition, an icon of the DIA's collection, representing a certain coming to consciousness for the art world, as well as for everyone. Constructed of seemingly cast-off materials, it's an art work of heroic proportions. But is it an abstract portrait of some "Tom" or an expression of human energy, with its tension and restraint, given the amusing and humbling name of Tom? There must be a private story for the name, but "Tom" is a small moment in the history of art to which many of us attach our own histories and perceptual growth, and to which we return again and again, as well as to other works in the collection, to ritually mark our growing sticks.

A few new wrinkles

There are serious critical questions raised throughout the galleries about how to accurately and imaginatively present art to the public, and Wilkinson and her team have had many points of view to consider. The conventional presentation of art is as a chronology, with the "isms," such as dadaism or surrealism, as interpretive labels. Departures from this "normative" method are usually based on political or social issues or themes, such as gender or civil rights. The abstract expressionist work by di Suvero, considered under a different rubric, might find itself questioned as to the stereotypical gendering of the sculpture with the name "Tom." Why not "Mary?" This kind of thinking might completely overhaul and perhaps rekindle the role of art in our culture.

Clearly, with literally hundreds of pieces of art to rethink, the job would be more enormous than it already is, and so there seems to have been a working compromise between all the participants of the reinstallation. New strategies of labeling some rooms and works have prompted new ways of thinking about what art is and how it makes meaning.

Three new rooms will be devoted to thematic or issue-related studies. Under the rubric of "technology," one room will show works by artists who have been influenced by technological innovations in our culture. The other two rooms will similarly consider issues of nontraditional or "other" influences, and the "spirituality" or "interiority" of art.

An innovation that will be tried in the pop art gallery is a curious cabinet housing hands-on, art-related objects. The gallery in general will be a proving grounds for new methods of presentation.

With these new innovations and educational strategies, the modern collection should offer new perspectives on modern art and prompt endless debate, but most important to our community will be having it back as an art destination, making the DIA a viable Detroit institution.

Moving pictures

With a cursory glance around the unfinished galleries, many of the large paintings in the abstract expressionist room have a fresh and tight look, as if they were new to the collection. De Kooning's "Merritt Parkway" seems almost innocent, and Hans Hofmann's "Lent" breathes large in the new open space around it and looks brilliant.

"The Bay" by Helen Frankenthaler has been restored, with its blue expanse glowing. Robert Irwin's uncanny plastic disk that dematerializes and floats eerily before us has a room of its own. There are also some surprises in the form of new acquisitions that will add to the excitement of the opening.

To say whether the reinstallation is a success or not is impossible until its completion in the fall of this year -- it remains a work-in-progress -- but anxious rumors are rampant, and people will watch, with eager anticipation, each new unfolding episode.

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